The Sesame Street/HBO Partnership Is Good for Kids

Early in 1969, Dean Burch, the new Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called me to ask for some advice. “Ok, big shot,” he said, “you talked me into taking this job. You told me I could do good in the world. Any ideas?” I told Dean about a new program not yet on the air, funded by the Carnegie Corporation and which I had seen presented by a talented broadcaster named Joan Cooney to a meeting of the board of National Educational Television – NET, the precursor to PBS.

“Cooney,” he said. “Do you think her maiden name might be Ganz?” Yes, I replied, she was introduced at the meeting as Joan Ganz Cooney.” Dean smiled. “You’re not going to believe this. I asked her to marry me when we were both students at the University of Arizona.” He got in touch with Joan, who told him she was having problems getting funding for distribution from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Dean, who had managed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, took her to see his old boss. “Ganz,” Goldwater said. “I see you’re from Phoenix. Are you related to Harry Ganz?” She was. “Harry was my dear friend and the first person to encourage me to run for office. How can I help you?” Not long after that, with Senator Goldwater’s endorsement, HEW approved the funding Joan needed. Later that year, “Sesame Street” went on the air. Today it is one of the most-watched programs in the world, on the air in many languages and more than 140 countries.

In the wake of last week’s announcement that the next five seasons of “Sesame Street” will premiere on HBO, not PBS, the program’s home for more than 45 years, we can take two lessons from this history.

The first is that “Sesame Street’s” birth was fortuitous. But for a series of coincidences it might never have gone on the air in a country where, for nearly a century now, we have had a broadcast television system attuned exclusively to marketplace, in which children are treated as a demographic to be sold to advertisers.

When Congress wrote the Communications Act in 1934, it took great pains to ensure air time for only one group of Americans, themselves. Children were not on the agenda then or now, one of the reasons for the HBO deal announced last week. In order to survive, to serve its historic mission of providing high quality programming for children, and especially disadvantaged ones, “Sesame Street” needs new sources of revenue.

The second lesson is that “Sesame Street” would never have existed at all but for the start-up funding it received from the private sector, not the government. The program began and continues as the kind of private-public partnership that Americans are singularly good at. Sesame Workshop, the producer of the program, is a non-profit corporation that receives some funding from the government, principally from the US Department of Education, but also from dozens of private donors, from the Gates Foundation to Walmart. “Sesame Workshop” itself has long earned nearly half of its revenues from licensing agreements – on merchandise from bed sheets to vitamins — money it has plowed back into children’s programming. Bert and Ernie aren’t welfare recipients. They’re entrepreneurs, and have been from the beginning. The HBO deal is but a new chapter in that history.

I understand and to some extent agree with critics of the HBO deal who believe it represents a betrayal of our children, and to the “public interest” the Communications Act requires of broadcasters. At a time when Congress has cut funding for Head Start and working parents struggle to find quality child care, the departure of “Sesame Street” for a premium cable channel seems like another slap in the face to poor and working families. It was by luck, by good relationships across party lines and by a commitment to public service that we even have “Sesame Street,” which is still unique even in today’s world of unprecedented quality and quantity in media for kids: There is nothing else like it in the pipeline. The economic divide is a growing problem, and the failure of leadership on public television funding and other early intervention programs is a serious one. The children who already have access to books and well-educated parents and caregivers are now going to have even more privilege, while kids who have very little will have less. Surely as a country we can do better.

But I am also optimistic. I have been both a critic and a champion of American television, a witness to its failures and its triumphs. The partnership between Sesame Workshop and HBO will result in significantly more programming – 35 episodes of “Sesame Street” per year instead of the current 18 – and all of them will eventually be free to PBS, where all children can watch them. And the existing library of “Sesame Street” programs will continue to air on PBS.

Sesame Workshop, like every legacy media venture, needs the human and financial resources to compete and to thrive in the digital media marketplace, and HBO can provide them. For several years now, the most innovative programming on television has come from cable programmers, not broadcasters. Understanding that, Sesame Workshop has made a bold and creative move. I believe Joan Cooney would have done the same, and that Dean Burch and Barry Goldwater would again embrace her vision.

Newton N. Minow was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for President John F. Kennedy. Craig L. LaMay, professor of journalism at Northwestern University, assisted him in writing this essay. Together they are authors of Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment.


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